The convoluted chain of financial relationships and shared agendas hasn't gone unnoticed among other criminal-justice interest groups. Critics charge that the victim-rights movement has become too closely allied with government to serve its diverse constituency. "COVA has always been very clear that their mission is retribution and punishment," says Maureen Cain, policy coordinator for the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar. "But victims come in all perspectives. A lot of times they want to prosecute to the full extent of the law, but sometimes they're counseled into that position.

"COVA's position has always been driven by the district attorneys," Cain continues. "Their boardmembers are overwhelmingly district attorneys and law enforcement. You almost don't have to talk to COVA [about legislation], because they're just going to do what the DAs tell them to do."

Lewis says her group and prosecutors argue frequently about policy and legislation — but not in public. "Our philosophy is, in legislation and funding and programs, to try to have consensus with folks," she explains. "If we have a disagreement, we have it behind closed doors. It isn't like the press would ever know about it."

Street violence claimed the life of Sharletta Evans's youngest son, Casson -- and led to her involvement in restorative-justice programs.
mark manger
Street violence claimed the life of Sharletta Evans's youngest son, Casson -- and led to her involvement in restorative-justice programs.

It's not exactly shocking that COVA would clash with the defense bar — or other "offender advocates," as those pushing sentencing reform are labeled by the victim-rights movement. But there have also been memorable disputes between COVA and other victim groups, over issues ranging from the death penalty to restorative justice.

"COVA is very good at giving victim assistance to victims," says Howard Morton, executive director of Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, which began as a gathering of eleven grieving family members in 2001; this month, it marks its tenth anniversary, with a membership now at 1,100. "But when COVA gets into the political arena, then we sometimes find ourselves on opposite sides of the fence."

Who speaks for crime victims in Colorado? The answer is complicated, as Representative Lee discovered when he went about clarifying HB 1032 to satisfy COVA and the district attorneys. (Passed last spring, the revised bill leaves no doubt as to who's in charge of the restorative-justice process: The phrases "victim-initiated," "requested by the victim" and "victim-centered" appear a total of thirteen times in the final version.)

"I think COVA represents some victims," Lee says carefully. "I don't think it represents all victims."

Then he quickly adds, "Don't get me in trouble with COVA. I want to work with them."

******

It's customary for lawyers and judges to pay lip service to the rights of victims in criminal cases. But only in the last three decades have victims achieved substantive rights and influence in the way crimes are prosecuted. Before that, being a crime victim was mainly about feeling powerless — losing your property, your peace of mind, your health, even a beloved child or parent or sibling or lover, without warning or any say in the matter at all. And that feeling of powerlessness often continued throughout the court process.

Joe Cannata remembers that feeling well. In 1987, his youngest daughter, Lynn, was stabbed to death in front of her two-year-old son. She was twenty and pregnant. The police suspected her boyfriend, but it was a couple of weeks before they could make the arrest.

"They had victim advocates in the DA's office, but their role wasn't well defined," Cannata recalls. "They were just starting to give out victim compensation. They gave the man who killed her $500 toward the burial, and he spent it on himself. After the trial, the judge actually apologized for having to give him such a harsh sentence. He didn't allow us to speak at all."

Lynn's boyfriend was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 24 years in prison. But that was hardly the end of it. The Colorado Court of Appeals tossed the sentence on technical grounds; the Colorado Supreme Court reinstated it. Under the sentencing scheme at the time, the man was eligible for parole after serving only a third of his time. Cannata learned how to negotiate the maze of parole hearings — even though his daughter's killer would often waive his hearing at the last minute, after Joe and his wife, Kaye, had driven hours to be there.

"The offender actually had control of the victim's life," Cannata says. "I didn't think he should have even been eligible for parole after only eight years."

The situation gradually began to change, starting with tough new laws dealing with domestic violence. Thanks largely to pressure from grassroots activists outraged by violence against women, Colorado became a pioneer in requiring arrest and treatment programs for batterers. Groups focusing on other crimes — Mothers Against Drunk Driving, campaigns targeting sexual assault and child abuse — also began to make their presence felt. COVA was incorporated as a board-run entity in 1982; Lewis became its first executive director in 1994.

In 1992, Colorado voters amended the state constitution to formally acknowledge that victims and surviving family members "have the right to be heard when relevant, informed and present at all critical stages of the criminal justice process." The Victim Rights Act, which has been amended five times since its creation, requires law enforcement agencies to keep victims apprised at every step of an offender's journey through the system, from arrest and preliminary hearings to parole matters or an upcoming release from prison or jail. The system has a review board for victims who have a complaint about their treatment and even a legal clinic, started by COVA, that can intervene in a criminal case on a victim's behalf.

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7 comments
Guest
Guest

Some good points in here but the reporting is pretty one-sided.

For instance: Why no mention of the fact that the while COVA was urging their supporters to contact Rep. Duran and ask her to vote against HB 1287 the Pendulum Foundation was making the exact same plea to their supporters to get Rep. Duran to change her vote?

Also, you point out COVA's lobbying efforts several times but I didn't see any mention of the fact that the Pendulum Foundation is a client of J. William Artist & Associates, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Colorado.

I freely admit my bias - a family member was killed by one of the men whose sentence would have been retroactively reduced under HB 1287 - but if you're going to claim objectivity in your reporting, you should at least make an effort to not let your bias color the story.

calhounp
calhounp

I'd like to publish some of these comments in our print Letters to the Editor section -- ideally with your full name/town. Let me know if that's okay at patricia.calhoun@westword.com

JusticeForAll
JusticeForAll

COVA has always been a direct arm of law enforcement and is so disconnected from the needs and voices of victims they claim to represent. They are far too systems oriented and it is abhorrent that money that VALE takes from direct service agencies is being given to COVA through the nepotism of personal relationships that exist between Nancy Lewis and her hand-picked board of directors.

On Fire
On Fire

Okay. Apparently COVA sees some victims as worth helping and others as not. The victims worth helping include abusive parents and the poor feeble prosecutors who are just trying to build political careers on the backs of abused children. The victims not worth helping are abused children themselves. Got it.

TruthSeeker
TruthSeeker

This was an amazing story. It's finally time that people started taking a look at the money trail of these organizations, especially COVA. They've been in the pockets of the systems-based agencies for years and get money funneled to them for their support. It's no accident that the Denver VALE administrator and co-administrator both serve on COVA's board and routinely take money away from direct-service agencies and hand it over to COVA. They do not speak for victims and I applaud the many agencies who have stood up to COVA to truly speak for their clients. Many of those folks have had their funding taken away by COVA's board members, who handle so much of the victim services funds in Colorado. Shame on COVA.

Catherine
Catherine

Thank you, Mr. Prendergast, for a very enlightening and in-depth story. Also, thank you to Mr. Lee for trying to find an outside the box solution to crime and community healing. The program might need finesse, but I believe it is an important step in the right direction. I hope that other Coloradoans support the measure. Catherine Keske.

Maryellen
Maryellen

Advocates for changing sentencing laws for juveniles serving life have always acknowledged that this issue is extremely complicated. There is no denying the pain of the victims and we advocates for sentencing reform have never done so. However in the past when we tried to introduce changes in the laws, we have been summarily dismissed by COVA and many district attorneys. "No, no, no." "The system is just fine the way it is." Our experience has been similar to Rep. Lee's. One year when we wrote voluntary restorative justice language into a bill, victims groups opposed it saying, "It has to be voluntary." When we pointed out that the provision WAS voluntary, they ignored the wording, pretending that it didn't say precisely what it DID say. No compromise, no changes are needed, regardless of evolving public opinion, scientific advances in the area of teen brain development, studies showing that juveniles receive harsher sentences than adults for the same crimes, and recent supreme court rulings.

We have enough obstreperousness on a national level. We in Colorado must be more thoughtful than that.

Kudos to Alan Prendergrast for a fresh look at a difficult issue. Victims are not a monolithic group and victims' rights groups, such as COVA, would be well served to expand their vision to include more restorative justice and to listen to the voices of victims who seek a measure of redemption and rehabilitation for offenders rather than endless punishment.

Somewhere amid all this pain and destruction there are areas of agreement and healing. I hope Alan's article and Rep. Pete Lee's legislation will be a step in that direction.Mary Ellen Johnson, Executive DirectorThe Pendulum Foundation

 
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